This week Chuck Lightning, the creative director/co-founder of Wondaland Arts Society and co-producer of Janelle Monáe's new album, The ArchAndroid, conducts a conversation with Atlanta native and songwriter/performer Cody ChesnuTT.
Last fall, when Cody ChesnuTT arrived at Wondaland, he got out of the car wearing a cape, a fishing hat and some soccer flip-flops, carrying a guitar. As he played music from his forthcoming album, Landing on 100, it became obvious that he'd undergone quite an evolution since his 2002 debut The Headphone Masterpiece. Gone was the reverence for pimping ("Serve This Royalty") and disdain for gold diggers ("Bitch I'm Broke"); replaced instead with something akin to transcendental soul. So when I was approached by Dave Eggers and Andrew Leland (managing editor of The Believer) about curating the CD for the 2010 music issue of The Believer, ChesnuTT was one of the first artists who came to mind.
I wanted to do something majestic, a musical state of the union address about the Obama era and the state of black art in the 21st century. After some thought, I named the music compilation We Bumped Our Heads Against the Clouds, an allusion to Virginia Hamilton's famous retelling of an African folktale called "The People Could Fly," in which several slaves fly up out of the cotton fields and back to Africa. Then I set about rounding up some of the greatest contemporary black songwriters I could think of, folks like ChesnuTT, and I asked them to contribute majestic songs that could best describe art, truth and beauty in this zeitgeist from a black American perspective. The following conversation gives a greater understanding to the overall endeavor from Cody ChesnuTT's point of view.
Chuck Lightning: Can you talk about how you see your music and art fitting into this Obama era?
Cody ChesnuTT: Well, to me, Obama's presidency represents a much-needed change in the national public image of African-American males, but I do think we need a huge push on the art and music end to help with that. You know, he can't do it alone. It's gonna take all of us. We're all gonna have to make a contribution. And as an artist, I personally would just like to make a contribution to the change in the adult male right now. We need really mature males right now, representing culture, so we can change the conversation.
Lightning: From a Wondaland perspective, your music, in particular The Headphone Masterpiece, was one of the cornerstones that we built our entire house on. We bonded over your live performances and music. But the persona that we saw on stage at that time, the persona we heard in your music, has changed so much over the years, and you're in a totally different space now. It seems that this new song "Come Back Like Spring" really speaks to the space that you're now in. What brought you from The Headphone Masterpiece to where you are now?
ChesnuTT: Well, overall, that journey represents my desire to grow as a man and as an artist. To put it plain, I moved out to the country [Tallahassee, Fla.] and went into a deep meditation. I began to read a lot more. Study the [Bible] scriptures a lot more. You know, I was really just asking God to give me something that I could contribute to the culture. Something that we could really feed off of and use as a tool to get a little deeper inside what causes us to move forward.
Lightning: Was this a reaction to the music industry, to negative events stemming from The Headphone Masterpiece or the overall vibe of L.A.?
ChesnuTT: It was a lot of things. It wasn't just that specifically, but that was a part of it. Overall, I just got to a point where I felt like I wasn't being spiritually fed anymore. And I needed to go to a place where I could really get built up inside again. Overall, Landing on 100 is just a body of work that really reflects a real intense period of observation.
Lightning: I've heard that on a lot of The Headphone Masterpiece you're channeling your uncle, who was a pimp or something like that — and that the hat that you wore was his hat?
ChesnuTT: The hat was my uncle's hat, my cousin's father's hat. Yeah, a lot of the characters in those songs definitely come from the uncles and the cats around the neighborhood that you just grew up watching and idolizing, and you don't realize you're internalizing all that activity and the conversation and the body language. All that stuff. But eventually, it shows up some kind of way.
Lightning: Well, I guess the assumption would be that when people hear a song like "Bitch I'm Broke," especially around that era, or "Serve This Royalty," they assume that this is you, this is your character, this is how you see the world and this is your perspective on the world. In fact, I always thought a song like "Bitch I'm Broke" represented your sensibility. I thought it was just a humorous moment in the studio that you just recorded. You might have felt a certain way a certain day and been inspired, and been like, "Shit. Bitch, I'm broke." That said, how do you separate yourself from these characters now, moving forward? And overall, do you think: "How am I going to fit The Headphone Masterpiece into my set as I grow as an artist?" Or are you just on to the next phase?
ChesnuTT: I'm definitely on to the next phase. I want to revisit the notion of being completely separate from your characters. It wasn't a conscious thing to say, "I'm going to jump into this frame of mind." It just happened. You were right about the "I'm Broke" song; that was completely a reactionary moment. I remember it like it was yesterday. Do you remember that song Missy [Elliot] had out "Hot Boyz?" — "I like them boys with them Visas" and all that — do you remember that song?
Lightning: Yeah, I remember that.
ChesnuTT: It was just a reaction, 'cause literally I was watching that video and I'd just gotten tired of all these songs that were just talking about money and what people wanted materialistically, this, that and the other. And I just felt like, what if the brother's broke, and I went and made that song literally in about 15, 20 minutes.
ChesnuTT: That's how that came out. Yeah, I mean ...
Lightning: [I don't know if you realize it, but] that's a male empowerment song. It's as much a part of our mythos, as much a part of black masculinity as "Bills, Bills, Bills" [by Destiny's Child] is for black women. It was our answer to that. That said, will you sing songs like "Serve This Royalty" now? Do they fit into where you're heading as an artist?
ChesnuTT: I couldn't sing it now because it would become a distraction. That's why when I was asked by the Roots to do it, my spirit couldn't line up with it because of the space that I'm in now. I believe it would become a distraction if I did it now because most people are gonna go back, and they still might be in that same stage, where it's strictly about pimpin'. Even when I was performing The Headphone Masterpiece, my relationship with God was getting better and I began to feel the conflict. When I was reading and studying, the mind-set of the songs didn't line up with the mind that I'm supposed to have if I'm a true believer.
Lightning: And the [phrase] "true believer" brings us back around to The Believer's music issue. Can you talk a little bit about the song ["Come Back Like Spring"] that's on the compilation, how it was written, what was the inspiration, what it means to you in this new phase?
ChesnuTT: Actually, I was outside mowing the lawn one day and I just happened to look around during that early part of spring and the whole concept just came rushing to me and I began to sing the chorus, [sings] "Come back like spring." And I just started looking at the details of spring and the song just wrote itself. God just laid the whole thing out. And to me, the song provides the model of how we should live through that phrase: Come back fresh, come back strong, come back new again. Come back invigorated and stimulated, because you look at all the colors in the springtime and the stimulus is crazy, so much around. So I'd say it's definitely [about] coming back full of life again. And anticipate that if you're going through some serious issues in life — your spirits are down, your hope is down — know that there's gonna be a moment where the beauty of life will find you again.
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